By Kari M. Pries
The reputation has spread of His Royal Highness Prince Harry’s Invictus Games (IG), which he created for serving members and veterans with physical or mental-health injuries or illnesses. Competitors appear to be some of the best motivators for new applications from fellow serving and former service members.
“Honestly, life sucks, work sucks. I was really feeling down and knew I needed to change my life somehow,” says retired Corporal Phil Badanai, recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal for his actions as a peacekeeper in Croatia, speaking to his motivation in applying to join Team Canada.
Captain (ret’d) Helene Le Scelleur served as medical corps second-in-command in Kandahar as well as aide de camp (ADC) to Governor General Michaëlle Jean. She explains that she had been living her life since her medical release from the Canadian Armed Forces one step at a time; she didn’t really have an objective, project, or goal in her immediate future, but realised that she needed one.
Having watched Invictus Games 2016 (IG2016) from his home in Saskatchewan, retired Corporal Joe Rustenberg thought he might “give it a try” if ever there were another Games, but he did not expect be picked. Badanai also didn’t put much hope in his application to join Team Canada at the Toronto Invictus Games in September 2017. “My only disability is being f*@d in the head,” he laughs.
Corporal Kelly Scanlan, also a firefighter recruit with the Milton Fire Department, did not anticipate the motivation she would feel to prepare herself when she signed up with “no expectations.” Born and raised in the Greater Toronto Area, Scanlan knew the Games in Toronto would mean that, should she make the team, she would be performing to a hometown crowd.
“You start getting physically active because you don’t want to let down your hometown or country. After a while it stops being about other people and it starts being about yourself and how much you can push yourself to achieve.”
Le Scelleur was similarly motivated: “I hadn’t done any training for five years, especially after one surgery. Training was missing from my life, but I didn’t have an objective to get started again. [With the hope of participating in the Invictus Games] I finally had an objective in front of me.”
90 TEAM MEMBERS, AS MANY STORIES
Coming from places of injury, recovery, and rehabilitation, these four — Badanai, Le Scelleur, Rustenberg and Scanlan — are among 90 currently serving members and veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces with physical or mental-health injuries who have been captured by the words from William Ernest Henley’s 1875 poem Invictus — “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” — and adopted it as their personal creed.
Phil Badanai joined the Canadian Armed Forces right out of high school in 1992 and came under fire in Croatia less than two years later while travelling back to base from an observation post. Both he and the other soldier in the truck were shot. The jeep, with its 52 bullet holes, is now on display in the Canadian War Museum. Badanai recovered from his injuries, carried on and completed several other deployments.
“Aggression is part of the culture in the infantry. It was when I was sent to [the air force base] in Cold Lake, Alberta, that I really started noticing differences.” It was not until Badanai’s posting to Trenton that he started treatment for a post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI), but the medical help did not slow his medical release in 2008.
Le Scelleur was on the point of promotion to Major, having been retrained as a social worker after fighting her way back from an operational stress injury (OSI), when she too was medically released. “I never had a chance to practice because the requirements of the universality of service [at the time] meant that my permanent medical category [compelled] my release,” observes Le Scelleur. “I was so frustrated when I released. … It was like losing everything I had worked towards since I was 17. Family, way of life, friends.”
About one-third of the team continue in active service with the Canadian Armed Forces, and for them the motivations to join and compete with Team Canada at the Invictus Games are slightly different.
“Some of our athletes are still serving in spite of grave injuries and, for us, making our challenges transparent in the service of our country is very important. The Games are an opportunity to still be accounted for, to show people we can continue to do the job,” explains Major Simon Mailloux, a company commander on the road to high readiness with the 1st Battalion, Royal 22e Régiment (1R22eR).
A NEW GOAL
Team Canada’s two co-captains, Natacha Dupuis and Simon Mailloux, approached the first training camp, held in early 2017 in Victoria, B.C., with open minds and plenty of optimism.
“You can’t have defined expectations,” states Mailloux. “I was looking forward to see what the spirit of the team would be.”
“I really tried to connect with everyone,” reflects retired Master Corporal Natacha Dupuis, who works for Finance Canada. “With 90 competitors though, it was hard.”
As they arrived, some competitors were nervous as they knew few if any of the other team members. Not all were comfortable to be back in a group setting that felt a lot like the military of which they had once been a part. Some were still under the shock of their acceptance to Team Canada, concerned that others were better athletes, in better form, or deserved it more.
Yet, “I was amazed, blown away to put on the team uniform,” says Rustenberg. “There was this great camaraderie with like-minded people … [the training] was really rewarding too.” Learning how to play new sports was a challenge — especially working out at three different sessions per day — but it made the day of rest halfway through the week-long training camp more than well deserved.
Scanlan was also struck by the inspirational changes brought about by joining the team at the first training camp.
“The athletes [on Team Canada] are in so many different places, with different injuries. … Another soldier telling you it sucks, it is going to suck for a while, but there is a way out we just have to find it” can be the push someone needs to go in a new direction, states Scanlan. “You just need to give people a chance to show themselves, and others, what they are capable of.”
Competitors credited the amazing talent and experience that the coaches were able to pass on and for providing the support individuals needed to get ahead. With their help, competitors were able to transition from questioning whether the team was really “their place” to “just get on with the job.”
Le Scelleur was stressed to go back on a military base after her experiences during the final years of her military career, and worried whether she could handle the training demands. Getting started was the hardest bit. However, after a few practice sessions, the coaches told her she had nothing to worry about and she moved from strength to strength.
Hoping to hedge his bets in getting picked for the team, Badanai had initially selected sports he figured would be unpopular with other applicants. He also picked up rowing following the example of his buddy Steve Daniels, a fellow team member and former Paralympic competitor. After the first training camp, however, he had complaints.
“I said, ‘Rowing? Steve, man, this sucks!’” Badanai says Daniels laughed in return, responding he had never said it was going to be easy. And, to be fair, Badanai has given himself a few extra challenges as well. He has taken up wheelchair tennis and rugby for a completely different sort of experience and confesses that there might be a reason why wheelchair rugby is nicknamed murderball.
“It is the greatest sport and I love it. [Wheelchair rugby] is a great levelling field.”
“Training camps are a great way to set up home training,” reflects Mailloux, “[because] most of the training happens at home. The biggest challenge after the first camp was to keep in touch with the team across what is a very large country. Me and [Natacha], we worked in tandem to get to know the team and to make sure that everyone built [their training capacity] higher.”
Dupuis was encouraged by the training camps: “The second training camp was amazing in that everyone was very focused on their training, but also very communicative and supportive.” Some of this she put down to the great Facebook communications the individual team units had had to encourage each other in their training between the camps.
Badanai agrees. He had suffered a stroke in April, prior to the second training camp. Instead of slowing him down, he found it was a motivator in pushing his training forward.
“I was posting online — this is what I am doing, this is my routine. Then others started telling me what a great encouragement I was, that I was motivating them. They were sending me text messages, that I was helping them. To me, if that is helping somebody, that is helping me.”
Reconnecting with others that had similar experiences in military life was a definite plus for Le Scelleur. Although her family is very supportive, she met her non-military partner while on the road to recovery so while he feels happy for her, the understanding is slightly different.
“On the team, I felt like I was back in the military. Team spirit, all the stories, sharing our own vulnerabilities … but it is comforting to know all those around you are going through the same thing. The team [has created] some awesome friendships, ones where I know we are going to keep seeing each other.
“We cannot do this alone,” Le Scelleur concludes. “We need the support of other people. We need to feel it is okay to be the way we are now. It keeps us pushing to the goal.”
Dupuis has been heavily involved since the day she found out she was going to be a team co-captain in pulling the competitors together and pushing them forward through trials. But she has also led the charge in creating new activities for those who are ready.
A chance chat in late April with her Ottawa Lions Club, which was in charge of organising the 2017 Canadian Track and Field Championships in the nation’s capital, led to her organising an Invictus Exhibition Team. It featured a mental injury category with former and present Invictus Team Canada competitors with sponsorship from the Canadian Legion Ontario Directorate and the support of Invictus Games 2017 (IG17) mascot Vimy. Project Invictus was a productive intermediate trial for competitors new to sport eventing, and allowed them to test their metal before the big day. “It was a real competition — crowds, spectators, and the stress that comes with it,” says Dupuis.
Bringing the event to fruition also became a significant learning experience for Dupuis herself. She not only competed in the track and field events, but coordinated the team’s participation, arranging flights, hotels, and other logistics. “Organising the event gave me confidence in myself. [It proved] what I am capable of despite PTSI and its recurring symptoms.”
IG17 promises to elevate the visibility of wounded, ill, and injured soldiers across Canada. It can be really beneficial for some and have a ripple effect to reach others who haven’t yet made contact. “Paying it forward to a colleague,” Team Canada Manager Greg Lagacé calls it. Lagacé points to the exponential increase in applications the CAF’s injury-support program Soldier On, which also manages IG Team Canada, has received since the IG17 launch as evidence that many are still unaware that there are programs for them.
With the support of his wife Melanie, Rustenberg is looking forward to the whole experience, which has already inspired new sporting challenges. “The IG best-case scenario will be to go out and do my best. It will be icing on the cake if I win a medal. But first, to get out there and be cheered on by everyone in Toronto and everyone in the country will be the best in my journey so far. It has definitely been a struggle, but you die if you stand still.”
His message to Canadians: “Just because we are wounded doesn’t mean we cannot contribute, cannot move forward. Just like the Invictus message, we are masters of our own fate.”
For more information on Invictus Games Toronto, taking place from September 23–30, 2017, go to www.invictusgames2017.com.